Jason S. Sexton
We were all undocumented once, if you like to think of things this way. With no paper, none to be possessed, owned, or laid claim to so as to build upon, capitalist-style. Of course, this erstwhile situation assumes that agency (the stuff giving evidence that one has a will), cognition, and personal resolve have something to do with the matter of being documented or not; yet they don’t really, or they didn’t then, once upon a time.
The powerful forces operating on us were bigger than us, than our parents, than any state government. Our once undocumented state, however, once suggested something about the integrity of our humanity and life; like it is now, our lives were contingent, derivative by nature—life from life, and sometimes from love, even though we had no papers. But in today’s debate, life, especially the barest kind, doesn’t factor into the conversation, nor does love. The humanity doesn’t matter, nor do the stories, nor the lives. Just proper documents.
What is a document? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English term comes from a combination of Old French document, denoting “lesson, written evidence” from the 12th–13th c., and the Latin noun documentum, meaning “lesson, proof, instance, specimen,” or else a written instrument, a charter, or an official paper in medieval Latin. The Latin verb docēre, meaning “to teach,” suggests something of a didactic function inherent in the term, whatever relationship the term might have to a similar-sounding dokimazō from the ancient Greek, or perhaps even dikaioō, suggesting a legal cause of doing or showing justice, related to a favorable verdict or vindication.
In the English usage, which has come down largely into the U.S. consciousness today, the term ‘document’ signifies teaching, instruction, warning, or else, “An instruction, a piece of instruction, a lesson; an admonition, a warning.” These definitions give way to a use with no less commanding function, but with an increasingly penal potential: “That which serves to show, point out, or prove something; evidence, proof,” often taking the subordinate clause—a document of birth, a document of citizenship, of acceptance, etc. without which one simply cannot show, point out, or otherwise prove what might be needed to support his/her status for personal well-being.
The noun is also used for “Something written, inscribed, etc., which furnishes evidence or information upon any subject, as a manuscript, title-deed, tomb-stone, coin, picture, etc., and specifically, “The bill of lading and policy of insurance handed over as collateral security for a foreign bill of exchange.” The definition in English increasingly points out transaction and property, and thus with regard to persons: propertied people, or people as property, belonging somewhat and in some way to whatever entity issued a person their essential documents.
Again, once upon a time it was not so—there were no documents of this kind to be spoken of in the ancient world. The rhythms and ordered systems of reality were different. The inception of these things, like writing in the history of civilization, came in sometime around 3,200 B.C. with the Sumerian society, which had increased to such size that a new methods of accounting appeared to better dictate relationships in the ancient world, organizing what sociologists today would call class or estate. Rulers in the early states were seen as ‘parents’ of their subjects, and this practice of writing or documenting things “emerged first as a way of accounting and power.” Knowledge of things could be stored more accurately than with earlier forms of oral transmission, in turn giving way to writing systems. The first of these to emerge in Mesoamerica (c. 600 B.C.) came from Southern Mexico. Bureaucracy mounted through the process, especially as the divide of social classes increased with the scribal and ruling elite at the top and everyone else at the bottom—i.e., those who owed things. Yet before this, once upon a time, there was no state agency’s orderly account of things denoting with some finality what was owed or given, nor a written debt to someone or something. The earliest writing arose with this, though, on documents that established code or law.
If the above notion were all there were, then everyone is both documented and undocumented in various ways. We owe things, and are all owed things in this complicated bureaucratic system of states and state-governed bodies. But the state is not only comprised of people collectively as a body politic; the systems are also created by the people and, perhaps in our wildest dreams, even somehow for the people. Moreover, in a fundamental sense, the state simply is people and a way of people existing together.
But the state is not only comprised of people collectively as a body politic; the systems are also created by the people and, perhaps in our wildest dreams, even somehow for the people.
On a basic level, then, there are always things that we don’t belong to: particular clubs, or institutions, or organizations, or parties; sometimes this is designated by individual agency and choice, other times these things are chosen for individuals who have little to no choice in the matter. Everyone doesn’t have every particular document, and are thus left excluded from certain things, generally reflecting class and segregation, as well as religion and race. Documents are an important way of denoting this, which can also be imprisoning, excluding, or else including in different categories.
But when do humans become ‘illegal’ or ‘outlawed’? It depends.
These things really are a moving target that we’re trying to highlight with the intellectual underpinnings of what we’re trying to discuss in addressing the issue of “Undocumented California,” and the manifold arbitrary inconsistencies that our government and culture use to legitimate dominant ideologies and institutions.
The Library of Congress has continued to use the term “illegal aliens” and “alien detention centers.” The term “illegal aliens” is also used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, especially in the recent statement from acting director Tom Homan in response to California’s SB54, declaring California a sanctuary state. But to declare individuals here illegally is not a matter that California’s governing authorities are quick to choose. Labeling and name-calling is something we’d rather leave to what our parents gave us. Immigration of any kind is always a great risk, taken with great hope, and great dreams—dreams that Californians value deeply as part of their identity. Illegal, then, is not a term we will use for Californians who choose to make their lives here.
Who would we be, should we create a kind of second-class citizen for a human being who is present in all astonishing wonder and humanness? Who would we be to create the underclass, and be happy with it, reinforcing the notion with media that underpins our identity (legal?) even if it disregards that of others?
The Associated Press recently gave a glimpse of a possible change in tone in a piece they published referring to, “undocumented citizens,” a designation fitting enough for those committed to contributing to our shared society and common good. The term used, however, was rescinded the very next day. The matter seemed to have not been entirely different from a hyper-sensitivity that the previous executive administration had together with Congress for very carefully enacting things like DACA in 2012, the cessation of which was announced by the Trump administration 5 October 2017. Both moves, however, in two different ways (from Trump and Obama administrations) showcase state power over residential subjects. Yet amid all changes that keep things consistently governmentally-controlled, with provisions doled out arbitrarily from year to year, this does not mean that cultural revolution and change cannot happen to renew our outlook.
None of this minimizes the potential existential crisis manifested in fear, destruction, loss, and seizure. One without proper documentation at any point today may be tossed swiftly to the margins, disrupting scores of lives. This is all part of the design and part of the larger story, none of which can be understood apart from the law, which in turn cannot be understood apart from worldview (or, suggestively, operative theology).
America the beautiful, the chosen, the exceptional—this vision fuels what we do with the different subjects of the U.S., most of whom will be punished at some point and in one way or another. The U.S. issues papers throughout this process to those con papeles as opposed to those sin papeles. This, too, is about power. The U.S. is not the only democracy that does this. But in this case, continuing capitalist style, the world’s elite can come anytime, especially to the coveted California: pay cash for a house, immigrate anytime. Their money will secure the documents needed.
But for those embodying any sense of the Statue of Liberty’s unfulfilled calling: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—these aren’t really in with making America great again. But if they aren’t, then nothing is. And even yet, if America is that place of “an established culture painfully adapting itself to a new environment, and being constantly checked, confused, challenged, and overcome by new immigrations,” then in California, America’s America, to the Statue of Liberty’s call our motto is not merely “yes” and “amen”; but is always “only more so.”
We cannot pretend that this in extremis version of America that California has embodied hasn’t involved the penal documentation of the ‘other,’ which also has always been part of our narrative. The carceral undocumented are trapped in county systems, or banished to the penitentiary, or vanished into Adelanto, our private immigration detention center. For the carceral undocumented, punishment inflicted suggests the need of discipline, whatever the half-hearted determination might be from the official verdict of whether or not they truly belong. In Spanish, the rendering of Michel Foucault’s Serveiller et punir is given as not “discipline” and “punishment” as his chosen term for the English translation, but rather as Vigilar (“keep an eye on”) y castigar.
When surveilled or punished, it’s not as though forms of documentation are not involved. We document everything. While great political figures receive exile, especially the white collared ones, the less significant players are swiftly discarded. In the vigilant, punitive surveillance of the carceral state, humans were written-out with documents of exclusion, but not without punishment for having the wrong kind of documents or else none at all, relegating them for banishment. To where, it didn’t much matter, so much of which is arbitrary, affirming again ultimate state power and control, and stability for the state and its shareholders, which can be both symbolically and psychologically reinforced with a stronger, ever increasing, larger, higher, bigger border wall.
That’s not how the truest Californians roll, though. We chart a different course, collecting and affirming the world, open to far more possibilities than the world has yet seen.
How do we reenvision our California selves then, both with the undocumented, and also simultaneously as the undocumented? And what is ‘undocumented’ in the contemporary moment? This is difficult to discern. We know California’s response has not been shy to these questions, but neither are we univocal with a position. Largely in opposition to the Washington administration, our Legislature, institutional, and civic leaders have uttered many words to the effect of protection and affirmation. Have they? Will they? These things in the contemporary moment should be understood as noble, ambitious, but still aspirational, part of a dream. But dreams are worth living into, and developing, especially when looking honestly and discovering the troubling reality that the world is indeed quite troubled. For those with some modest means, will, and desire to do something about it, dreaming may be essential for survival.
The term ‘undocumented’ is quite possibly a cheap concession that, while humbly admitting “need” (need for proper documents?), also concedes: “We don’t have documents needed to remain, to abide, to be/exist.” But this is a declaration humans must not be able to make of humans. To unwrite a person, to erase, negate, subtract, to deny life—this ought not be done. It happens, and may be something, but is certainly not of California—a state of mind as much as anything—where the dreamers remain, belong, until the end of time.
It happens, and may be something, but is certainly not of California—a state of mind as much as anything—where the dreamers remain, belong, until the end of time.
Our overall position only makes sense in light of what’s possible, or at least plausible, and what we have done before to build ourselves up amid great challenges. There’s nothing new under the sun. And dreaming does not mean aspiring to a utopian society. California is surely not that, nor will it ever be. [Perhaps in fifty years Mexico may beat California to this.] But California can be a place of solidarity, mutuality, respect, dignity, and healing. We can work together, believe in each other, and re-recognize our shared humanity of wealthy and poor, and the poor in spirit—blessed as they are. And are those who mourn, and the meek, and those who hunger and thirst to be righteous (to have papers), who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.
Californians—we hope, we believe, we assert, we confront, and we fight—but we don’t fear, even if disinherited. We’re not going to fall for rhetoric that divides families, disrupts classrooms, invades workspaces. And we can take the nation’s undocumented, the poor, the disinherited. Deport them to California, Joe Mathews argues. And more so.
Californians, we ourselves often forget our stories, and those of others around us—we know that more of the point is found looking to the future. Amnesia is often tacitly prescribed upon arrival. But we have memory, identity, presence, and know what it means to be human, documented or not. We know, or at least we’re trying to find time to breathe and reorient ourselves to figure out what it means in this moment to do justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly.
Perhaps the undocumented are the greatest examples of humility, and the very best of what the American (and Californian) disposition could dream to be. Maybe perceived as hiding in the shadows, laying low in order to not be found out, deported, sometimes self-deported, or else going underground, under the radar, opting not to remain in an official governmental capacity. Yet they are also activists—they are mothers, fathers, children—they are like us, but of course are second or perhaps third or fourth class citizens. But whenever did one’s official status constitute what’s real? What’s prescribed as ‘official’ does not constitute how life, culture, and love is ever made—the true, enriching stuff that makes life worth living. That stuff is hard to document in any proper sense, however we might try; but that’s what matters most, and is most needed right now.
- With gratitude to Miroslava Chávez-García, Susan Straight, and Abel Fernando Vallejo Galindo, an undocumented Californian, for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
 Luke Bretherton refers to this as “life excluded from participation in and the protection of the rule of law,” Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 220. See also Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).
 Meaning, “to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine”; or “to draw a conclusion about worth on the basis of testing, prove, approve.” William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 255.
 Ibid., 249.
 Quotations are taken from “document, n,” OED Online, June 2017, Oxford University Press, http://www.oed.com.lib-proxy.fullerton.edu/view/Entry/56328?result=1&rskey=EkUMvF& (accessed 5 October 2017).
 David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 275.
 Ibid., 277.
 Robert Tignor, Jeremy Adelman, Peter Brown, et al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, Vol. 1: Beginnings through the Fifteenth Century (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2014), 55.
 Kevin Starr identified this as a perpetual tension in California life, historically and into the present, noting particular operative racial, ethnic, and religious covenants of exclusion, as well as the long-seated enmities that various immigrant groups to California held against each other, highlighting especially the American dilemma of race as equally a California problem, although perhaps even more so. Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Random House, 2005), 308.
 For the deeply irresponsible “Statement from ICE Acting Director Tom Homan on California Sanctuary Law,” see https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/USDHSICE/bulletins/1bbc85f.
 Note that Senate Bill 54 does not use the terms ‘illegal’ or ‘alien’ in its entire text: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB54.
 Ryan Saavedra, “Associated Press Now Refers To Illegal Aliens As ‘Undocumented Citizens’,” The Daily Wire, 7 September 2017, http://www.dailywire.com/news/20784/associated-press-now-refers-illegal-aliens-ryan-saavedra.
 “Associated Press Now Refers To Illegal Aliens As ‘Undocumented Citizens’,” 8 September 2017, https://www.apnews.com/14392ccadac64851a2c23bcbaeea4c39/Mayor:-Chicago-students-welcome-as-Trump-ending-DACA-program.
 See Hiroshi Motomura, Immigration Outside the Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4-5 on complexity of terms and significance of understanding these things in relation to law. See also pp. 19-55.
 See Marc Morjé Howard, Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
 Jen Hofer, “Under the Radar and Off the Charts: Undocumentation in Los Angeles,” in Patricia Wakida, ed., Latitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas (Berkeley: Heyday Books), 161.
 See dust-up with erstwhile California resident, Steven Miller, in Liz Stark, “White House policy adviser downplays Statue of Liberty’s famous poem,” CNN, 3 August 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/02/politics/emma-lazarus-poem-statue-of-liberty/index.html.
 Wallace Stegner, “California: The Experimental Story,” Saturday Review, 23 September 1967, 28.
 Some native indigenous Californians were documented somewhat with names for tribes that became common, or with new names for captured individuals or those baptized or brought into missions. But early accounts of the turbulent and chaotic years of genocidal violence against Californian Indians left poor documentation not only as to name but also to tribal identity. See Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 15. And for details listing the numbers of how many were murdered during this time period, see Appendices 1-6, pp. 363-550.
 See reasons why unauthorized migration benefits the U.S. government, Motomura, Immigration Outside the Law, 52-55.
 Joe Mathews, “Legal residency for California’s undocumented,” Zócalo’s Connecting California, 7 September 2017, http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/zocalos-connecting-california/legal-residency-for-californias-undocumented.
 Brittny Mejia, “Leaving America: With shaky job prospects and Trump promising crackdowns, immigrants return to Mexico with U.S.-born children,” Los Angeles Times, 19 September 2017, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-ln-dual-citizenship-20170808-htmlstory.html.
Jason S. Sexton is visiting fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Religion, and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society. He teaches at California State University, Fullerton, where he serves as Pollak Library Faculty Fellow. He is the Editor of Boom California. For more information, please visit www.jasonssexton.com.
Copyright: © 2017 Jason S. Sexton. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/